PRINCESS ANNE — Town, county, university and state officials met jointly for the first time with a governor-appointed facilitator Monday to work toward a resolution to a water shortage that has spurred a lawsuit, threatened county growth and drawn a wedge between Princess Anne, Somerset County or Maryland environmental decision-makers over how to solve the issue.
For nearly three hours, officials weighed costs of water-supply options, demand for the resource based on growth projections for the Lower Shore county, including neighboring University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Eastern Correctional Institution, and potential avenues to securing an adequate supply of environmentally safe drinking water.
In the end, the group of a dozen or more representatives prioritized water-system options and agreed to focus subsequent meetings in November on three rather than five potential system approaches:
• Resume approval of construction permits for building in the county without the currently required secondary standards, or minus a Maryland Department of the Environment-required reverse osmosis system to treat aquifer water for excess fluoride;
• Build a $13.5 million reverse osmosis treatment system to treat water pulled from two proposed wells in the Patapsco aquifer. Maryland Environment Secretary Shari Wilson has said treatment of Patapsco water is necessary to reduce fluoride to 2 milligrams per liter under goals established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The level currently is about 4 milligrams per liter;
• Blend water from two aquifer sources — the Patapsco and another — to meet the quality fluoride standard required by MDE.
Attending the meeting were members of the Somerset County Commissioners and County Administrator Dan Powell; the Somerset Sanitary Commission that oversees the county water and sewer systems; Princess Anne Town Commissioners; members of the Maryland Department of Planning, Maryland Environmental Services and Maryland Department of the Environment; and Maurice Ngwaba for UMES.
Benefits of the discussion facilitated by David Nemazie, associate vice president at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge, depended on who was asked.
“I sit here and listen today, and we’re no closer now then we were then,” said Delegate Page Elmore, R-38A-Wicomico, referring to previous meetings with state and county officials on the issue. “If (the Maryland Department of the Environment) sits here and never gives Somerset water, we’re not going anywhere.”
“Something’s wrong somewhere”
Jerald Wheeler of the Maryland Environmental Services, though, called the open dialog between town, county and state officials encouraging.
“It was a good meeting to get direct communications and working toward a solution,” he said. “We also reduced priorities to three (options) and agreed next to further discussions.”
The process began in September when county and town officials met with Gov. Martin O’Malley to sort out the state’s refusal to issue permits for the Patapsco aquifers without a reverse osmosis treatment system. County officials have argued the treatment is unnecessary and would cost residents an estimated $1,400 annually for maintenance.
Last week, the Somerset Sanitary Commission filed a lawsuit against Secretary Wilson and the MDE, claiming that her refusal to grant permits for the Patapsco without reverse osmosis treatment was unlawful.
Somerset and Princess Anne officials have been at odds over the water issue, and town leaders point out that millions of dollars have been lost from potential construction because the quasi-county Sanitary Commission issued a moratorium on building until the water shortage issue is resolved.
Somerset officials on Monday expressed frustration that Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler has yet to render an opinion on Wilson’s authority to withhold Patapsco permits. An opinion received last week in support of Wilson from Steven R. Johnson, a principal counsel in the AG office, “is not what we asked for,” chided County Commissioner Rex Simpkins.
James Ring, president of the Somerset Commissioners, told the panel he is a native of the county who never heard of anyone becoming ill from drinking water from the Patapsco aquifer.
“I drank water here all my life and it never killed nobody,” he said. “Something’s wrong somewhere.”
Nemazie asked panel members to compile an analysis including a technical perspective on each prioritized option for several follow-up discussions before the Thanksgiving holiday.